Nadine Dorries and her blog

Is Nadine Dorries MP using social media to both mislead and attack constituents?

Once upon a time, what happened in social media stayed in the social media.

What was said on blogs and on Twitter was inconsequential. It didn't really matter; nobody would notice, nobody would care in the real world.

However, the astonishing abuse of her blog by an elected member of parliament is challenging such complacent assumptions. For there are now grave questions to be raised as to the weird and worrying conduct of Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire.

First, a confession. I used to admire Dorries's blogging in her early days (see my comment here). Accordingly, what I have now to report cannot be dismissed as the smears of some long-time opponent. Instead, it is tinged with the sadness one has when witnessing any decline and fall.

Let us start with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Dorries has recently been cleared of misusing her accommodation allowance. However, it is what came out in the course of the investigation that is interesting about her use of social media.

In paragraph 81 of his report, the commissioner records Dorries as telling him:

My blog is 70 per cent fiction and 30 per cent fact. It is written as a tool to enable my constituents to know me better and to reassure them of my commitment to Mid Bedfordshire. I rely heavily on poetic licence and frequently replace one place name/event/fact with another.

This is a remarkable, discrediting admission. But it was an admission she had to make, in a way, as the commissioner had rightly spotted that what she said on her blog in no way tallied with her claims for accommodation allowances.

So we need not be surprised when the commissioner states in paragraph 157 of his report:

Some material on Ms Dorries' weblog appears to suggest a pattern of use of her constituency property in some respects at variance with the evidence she has given, in that it implies she has a more permanent presence in the constituency. Ms Dorries' evidence is that she gave prominence on the blog to her use of her constituency property both to comfort her constituency association and to demonstrate to her constituents the degree of her personal commitment to her Mid Bedfordshire constituency. Her evidence as to the reliance to be placed on material on her blog is that it is in fact 70 per cent fiction and 30 per cent fact, and relies heavily on poetic licence. She frequently replaces place-names, events and facts with others.

This is clearly rather serious. The inference is that either her blog or her evidence to the commissioner is deliberately incorrect and misleading.

So what view did the commissioner take, when faced with this evidence? Which of Dorries's contradictory versions is truthful and correct? In his formal conclusions, at paragraph 167, the commissioner states:

Ms Dorries' evidence to me was also inconsistent with statements she had previously made on her weblog and in the press, where she seemed to go out of her way to emphasise that she lived in the constituency. I needed to resolve the apparent conflict between what she was telling me and what she had put on her weblog and had told the press. I accept her explanation that the weblog was not accurate but was intended to give her constituents the impression that she was living in the constituency. I therefore consider that Ms Dorries' evidence to me, reinforced by much of the other evidence I have received, is to be preferred over the impression given in her weblog references. But I note that the result of these references is that the weblog gave information to its readers, including Ms Dorries' constituents and party supporters, which provided a misleading impression of her arrangements as the Member of Parliament for the constituency.

Just how close is this a direct accusation of dishonesty by the commissioner against Dorries? Is he actually calling her a liar?

Well, on the one hand, he accepts that what she was telling him directly was truthful and correct. But if this is the case, then the accusation must be that Ms Dorries is knowingly misleading her constituents on her blog. If so, it is difficult not to see such an accusation as a straight allegation of dishonest conduct. And, if so, it would be of the greatest significance: regardless of the medium, it is a serious matter to say of any member of parliament that he or she is deliberately misleading his or her constituents.

So what did the Commons standards and privileges committee make of the commissioner's report? In particular, how did members respond to the suggestion that their fellow MP was knowingly misleading her constituents?

Their response was at paragraph 24 of the standards and privileges committee's report:

Ms Dorries does not agree with the comments made by the Commissioner about her use of her blog. She states that his description of comments made on the blog as "misleading" is "strongly worded and incorrect". We accept that Ms Dorries used the blog to reassure her constituents of her commitment to them, and also to protect her own privacy. We do not feel, however, that the Commissioner's comment is unfair. There are discrepancies between some of the information that appeared on Ms Dorries' blog and the information she supplied to the Commissioner during the investigation. The Commissioner was quite correct in seeking an explanation of the differences, in order to form a judgement about the complaint. It is right that he sets out in his memorandum his conclusions about which information he could rely on.

In other words, it was not unfair of the commissioner to make such an allegation. The MPs furthermore heard Dorries's protests at the commissioner's serious allegation, but they did not accept them. Other MPs simply did not believe her.

Deliberately misleading constituents is a grave charge.

But there have been other serious allegations about Dorries's use of her blog. A pattern of wayward – almost random – behaviour has been apparent for many months now. It is evocative of the slow breakdown of HAL at the end of 2001.

For example, she recently resorted to a blog post to raise implicit allegations of impropriety against a constituent who had been engaging with her on Twitter; and then, only last week, she made direct allegations of criminal activity against a critical blogger.

In neither case has she so far been able to substantiate any of her express or implicit allegations. And nobody who now follows her blogging realistically expects her to do so.

These are not trivial matters: using any publication to mislead constituents and to make unsubstantiated allegations is possibly as serious an abuse of any medium – social or mainstream – as it can get for a politician.

Even partisan Conservatives must regard this as unacceptable and, indeed, off the record many do so. For many, sadly, a once-excellent blogger has become an embarrassment and a disgrace.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He blogs on legal and policy matters for the New Statesman. He has recently been appointed a judge for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging, for which he was shortlisted this year.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.